By Michael Rosen
This is the last of a three-part sequence of autobiographical books. Now in his late 50s, Michael Rosen looks back to his adolescence and young manhood, especially to a summer spent in a holiday colonie (countryside camp) run by a trade union in the Ard che in southern France. Here he enjoyed a sometimes dangerous comradeship with the working-class boys - "I wanted to be them" - and felt wistful about the unattainable girls from whom he finally received no more than a cryptic postcard. Breaking through the surface of intense and happy memory is a frequent sense of ageing and loss.
The book's subtitle shows how Rosen bravely explores painful feelings that still have the power to hurt. The other books in the trilogy deal respectively with the death of his son in young adulthood and his own serious illness; here the pain is related to being shut out from the brotherhood and sisterhood enjoyed by the young French communists, in a situation where "my currency was valueless". By contrast, we are shown how he later finds a place and a sense of involvement in radical political campaigns, which leads to lengthy references to the naval mutineers of 1797 and the Chartists. It's hard to see the relevance of these passages, except as an attempt to create a political ancestry. It's around this point that the book gets lost.
There's a sharp and funny self-portrait of a youth "sitting in my bedroom trying to be D H Lawrence", but the story of university life is deliberately and annoyingly blurred. Rosen won't use the name "Oxford" for his alma mater, but surrounds it with unnecessarily coy clues. There's an undeveloped account of the student sit-ins of 1968, but it's not clear whether changing the English syllabus and ending the Vietnam war shared then (or now) the same moral status. This disconcerting tone is built into the book's structure. There is a lively, quizzical picture of the author's parents - by turns idealistic, argumentative, trusting and fussy. Other people are treated in a more enigmatic and oblique manner, referred to merely as "he" or "they".
The book's title refers to Kafka's marvellous story, In The Penal Colony; casual readers may not catch allusions to this and to Solzhenitsyn in the text. The publisher's blurb tells us that these are prose poems, but the language is often neither intense nor exact enough for poetry. It seems telling that Rosen praises surrealism over conventional portraiture. Too many inconsequential anecdotes find a place, as does some blokeish and boring metaphysics about the nature of the self. The central sections about the French holiday contain lyrical and vivid sections, there's a lovely description of crossing a river, but as a whole the book is less a mosaic than a jigsaw puzzle with essential pieces missing.